Justice reform could increase crime without treatment funding, Utah chief justice says
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's Justice Reinvestment Initiative won't work and could lead to more crime without money to provide mental health and drug abuse treatment for offenders, the chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court told lawmakers Monday.
The law was predicated on the fact that it is more effective to treat substance abuse and mental illness than to send people to prison. But the state has not added the treatment programs and funding necessary to replace reductions in supervision and incarceration, Chief Justice Matthew Durrant said in his State of the Judiciary speech.
"On this point I need to be clear — if treatment is unavailable, not only will the system fail to improve, it will likely worsen," Durrant said. "Putting offenders who previously would have gone to jail or prison into the community, without treatment, will almost certainly increase crime."
State lawmakers last year passed the most significant criminal justice reform bill in decades. Proponents touted it as not getting soft on crime but getting tough on criminals.
The initiative seeks to make sentencing more fair and increase opportunities for treatment to reduce stress on bulging prisons and jails. It also reduces the penalties for certain drug crimes.
Republican legislative leaders were asked Monday if the new policy played a role in the release of Cory Lee Henderson, the man who shot and killed Unified police officer Doug Barney last week.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said if the law contributed to Henderson's release, lawmakers would address it. But, he said, he's not sure it contributed.
State corrections officials said last week it had nothing to do with Barney's death.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, said changes to the initiative were already underway before the shootings.
"I would resist the temptation or the efforts of some to point to a bill that we passed that would have caused such a terrible tragedy. I don't believe that that's the case," Hughes said in an interview.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, who sponsored the legislation, said the reform initiative did not cause the shooting. "But can additional changes help to prevent it? Absolutely," he said.
Hutchings said has been looking to tweak the policy to make sure various law enforcement agencies share records about offenders so they're on the same page.
"Would it have made an impact in this one? I do not know. But what I do know is the more information people have, the better decisions they can make," he said.
Legislative leaders, Hughes said, have talked to the executive branch, state corrections and the probation parole department.
"There's just a string of events that happened that obviously are heartbreaking and regrettable, but I think it would be a mistake for anyone look back to the work and the good reform that we're doing here at the Legislature and lay it at the feet of judicial reform," he said.
Durrant did not address the police shootings in his speech.
He said the reform initiative not only makes substantive changes to criminal law, but requires a significant cultural change, which might be the bigger challenge. The transition, he said, hasn't been without anticipated problems.
"Anyone who expected a flawless transition did not fully appreciate how drastically (the Justice Reinvestment Initiative) changes Utah's criminal justice system," Durrant said.
Judges are now expected to use a more objective approach to sentencing and rely on tools and reports they haven't seen before, he said, adding that judges have had training on the new law.
Contributing: Lisa Riley Roche
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